What do you find yourself consistently saying in your prayers?
“Thank you for this day,” “God be with me,” “God bless me” or “God bless so-and-so,” “Bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies”?
Do you find yourself saying any or all of these things in all your prayers? Each of these things may or may not be legitimate things to say in our prayers to God, but I wonder if sometimes they don’t become “empty phrases,” like Jesus warned against in Matthew 7:7, when we close or open every prayer with such phrases. The Gentiles incorporate such empty phrases into their prayers because they “think they will be heard by their many words.” They likely either thought that if they repeated their prayers enough, their prayers were more likely to be heard by one of their many gods or they hoped that repetition would serve to twist some god’s arm to act on their behalf. It should be noted that there is a difference between mindless repetition and persistence in prayer for something that is good, Jesus clearly approves of the latter (Luke 18:1ff).
A disciple of Jesus, however, doesn’t have to repeat his prayers in mantra-like fashion. Jesus tells his follower “do not be like [the Gentiles], for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” God knows us better than we know ourselves, he knows us perfectly (Ps. 139:1-4) and so he knows what we need and it is absurd to think we could twist his arm with our prayers.
The other trap that Jesus warns his disciples against in regards to prayer in Matt. 6 is “not to be like the hypocrites” (6:5) who “love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.” In other words, don’t practice your piety for man’s praise. Otherwise you have “received [your] reward” (6:5). If you are seeking man’s praise, you will get it, but that is all you will get and you will miss out on true, lasting reward from your Father in heaven (6:1). These warnings may be summarized as: follows, beware of seeking glory from men and beware of diminishing God’s character in your prayers.
So these two warnings, not to heap up empty phrases and not to practice your piety to be praised by men, provide important context for Jesus’ radical teaching on prayer, when he says to his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount, “Pray then like this . . .”
In what is known as The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus isn’t telling his disciples to pray this prayer but rather he is teaching them how to pray and as he so often does, seeks to radically change their perspective. The first line of the Lord’s prayer may be the most radical statement in the prayer, as Jesus teaches us (i.e. his disciples) to address our prayers to “Our Father in heaven.” This was radical because it was very rare for Jews to pray to God as their father. Daniel Doriani, in his book The Sermon on the Mount, makes the important observation that “on rare occasions the Old Testament refers to God as ‘Father’ (Deut. 32:6; Ps. 103:13; Isa. 63:16; Mal. 2:10), but no prophet taught the people to pray to God as ‘our Father.'”
Calling God his Father, was the sort of thing that inspired the Jews to seek to kill Jesus (John 5:18) and yet Jesus teaches his disciples to “pray then like this . . . Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” Why would Jesus say something like that? Didn’t he know the consequences for praying such prayers? Of course he did! This is where understanding Jesus’ kingdom of heaven teaching in Matthew is helpful. Jesus can tell his disciples to address God as their Father in their prayers because Jesus isn’t just teaching them about the kingdom but he is actually bringing in the kingdom of heaven!
Matt. 4:17 gives us the content of Jesus’ preaching which was this: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
In Matt. 3:11 John the Baptist prophecies of one who “is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” So John tells us that Jesus will not only preach but will actually significantly shake up the world in which we live as he will not only baptize with the Holy Spirit, but also “gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matt. 3:12). So John sees Jesus as not simply preaching the kingdom message but actually starting this new kingdom by gathering to himself a people and even judging those outside.
Further, we read in Matthew 4:23-24 that Jesus “went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the poeple. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them.” Too often we think that Jesus healed people merely to gain a hearing, but I think Jesus healed people because he is bringing in the kingdom of heaven! He is inaugurating the defeat of Satan and sin as Jesus casts out demons and heals sicknesses. In healing the sick and casting out demons, Jesus is inaugurating the restoration of the fallen world.
This kingdom is a new kingdom, though promised of old, in which those who repent and believe will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. The demonic realm is being overthrown in Jesus’ earthly ministry, and in this kingdom God begins to adopt for himself a new people through Christ who can then pray to him as “our Father in heaven!” Because Jesus has brought in this new kingdom, his children no longer live for the praise of men (6:1) and instead can joyfully pray for God’s name to be regarded as holy and his will to be accomplished on earth (Matt. 6:9-10).
I think Matthew’s emphasis on the kingdom of God is the theological key to understanding the Sermon on the Mount. I hope, in posts to come to expand on how this context is worked out in the Lord’s prayer as well as on the manner in which Jesus teaches us to pray.